In an unremarkable field north of Route 66 sits a small collection of metal memorabilia, including a cactus, a Martian, a pair of cows, and the jewel of the set: a child-sized locomotive called the Lincoln County Express. The first time I saw the little rusted relic, my girlfriend and I were returning from an all-day trip on the Route. We were traveling from Sayre, on the western side of the state, heading back home to Tulsa. When I saw it out of the corner of my eye, I was shocked. I slammed on the brakes as if a child had run out into the road. I turned around and pulled over to the side of the road.
I hopped out of the car with my camera and dashed over to the little train. The locomotive was originally painted green, though there’s a significant patina now. It was sitting on a little facsimile bit of railroad track and was surrounded by tall grass and encroaching trees. I felt like I’d stumbled across a secret: there were no fences, nor signs telling me I was trespassing. The surrounding countryside was quiet aside from the occasional car that sped by. Since then, I’ve stopped a few more times over the last few months to observe it in the winter and capture it in a different light. For me, the little train represents the whole of Route 66 and the state of the historic highway. It’s a reminder of a bygone era, when a trip was as much about the journey as the destination.
In January, I shared one of my photos on Facebook. A few days later, I received a message from the daughter of the man who built it; someone had shared my photo on her wall, who then shared it with her. Before I knew it, I was having a lovely phone conversation and learning more about the train’s history. Apparently, it was built by Paul Hicks, who was born in 1921 and worked as a pipeline welder in northeast Oklahoma. In the mid-70s, he used his metal-sculpting skills to assemble this wonderful roadside attraction. People have been stopping by ever since.
Over the years, various groups have shown interest in this Mother Road gem: Volvo came out in the early ‘90s and took photographs for one of their automobile catalogs, the Children’s Miracle Network inquired about buying it, and Paul himself was even featured on a local PBS broadcast.
Although Hicks passed away in 2001 and the collection has fallen into disrepair, it hasn’t halted a flow of travelers from showing interest. Paul’s family plans to refurbish the train this year so that children can once again come and play on the Lincoln County Express, ensuring that Paul Hicks’ legacy remains intact for years to come.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015